The warmth of Philip Roth's breath is on every page of Claudia Roth Pierpont's new biography.
Reviewed by D.G. Myers for The Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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Readers who love Philip Roth and readers who hate him, readers who have opened practically nothing by him and readers who have practically committed his prose to memory, all have reason to be grateful to Claudia Roth Pierpont for this study of the "writer and his books." Until Blake Bailey completes the authorized biography, Pierpont's book is as close as we are likely to get to a life of Roth. It's true that Roth Unbound is an intellectual biography – the story of a mind – and not a gossipy chronicle of a famous man's eventful years. And yet its principal interest is biographical, whatever else Pierpont may have hoped to achieve.
Her timing is exquisite. Philip Roth announced last November that, after 31 books in 53 years, he was retiring from the "struggle with writing." Bailey's authorized biography will not be ready for nearly a decade. In the meantime, "Roth Unbound" might be considered something like definitive. Roth participated fully in the project from the beginning. He and Pierpont first met in 2002, became friends two years later, and spent much time together "discussing books and politics and a thousand other things." First begun as a short essay for a collection on American subjects, her manuscript grew and grew and became a 350-page book if only because Roth "was willing," Pierpont says, "to talk with me ... at length."
The warmth of Roth's breath is on every page. Thus we are treated to the curriculum vitae of his romantic life (the two marriages, the respective girlfriends); we are given the details of his travels to Czechoslovakia and his unselfish efforts to secure financial support for Czech writers (and the botch of the job made by PEN, when the writers' association took over the arrangements); we learn about his passion for classical music, his difficult and ambivalent relationship with Saul Bellow, his literary likes and dislikes, how he fills his days now that he is living the "non-writing life." For the Roth devotee, all this is background lighting – some illuminating, some merely colorful – to the work, which remains the focus of "Roth Unbound." Pierpont also reveals the genesis, the composition history, of each and every Roth book, along with the novelist's own account of its intention and design.
For the Roth newbie or skeptic or hater, "Roth Unbound" is perhaps even more useful. It has the same structure as those Critical Guides or Twentieth-Century Views that English majors used to rely upon to introduce themselves to a new author. Each chapter is about the next book in Roth's career, the next entry on his bibliography. Anyone who is puzzled by a Roth book freshly read (or anyone who wants to skip a Roth book, but also wants to know what's inside) can obtain the essential information from Pierpont's chapter on it. In fact, Pierpont would have been well-advised to trade her evocative chapter titles ("A Holiday about Snow") for the drabness of candor ("On 'Operation Shylock' "). At its best when it is most useful, "Roth Unbound" has the virtue of comprehensiveness and the authority of Roth's imprimatur too. It is a book that is meant to be picked up and put down as need arises and flags.